A Study of Romans 2:1

“Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

The apostle introduces this second chapter by combining it with the first when he says: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judges.”


The question is, wherefore? Wherefore is this particular man whom the apostle addresses inexcusable?

It is evident that the apostle is introducing a new phase of the main theme of this part of his epistle. This main theme is that the apostle develops a reason why he is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is not ashamed of the gospel, because, positively, it proclaims a righteousness which is free, which is by faith, which is without works. Negatively, he is not ashamed of the gospel, because the world is in need of just such a righteousness. It is impossible for man to attain righteousness. He is unrighteous, drawn down by the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven. This the apostle developed in the first chapter.

Now it is not only possible, but it is also characteristic of sinful man, to look for an excuse. If what the apostle has written concerning the sinner is to take hold of the consciousness of man, it is necessary that the sinner does not excuse himself anymore. As long as the sinner can find one excuse, he will not be receptive to the gospel. It is also one of the chief characteristics of the sinner that he will try to exclude himself from the company of those who are under the wrath of God. According to this tendency of the sinful heart, the sinner might say, “It is all true what the apostle has written concerning the world. But I am not part of that rebellious, vile, damnable world.” He lifts himself above the world which the apostle has described and, instead of being a defendant, he makes himself a judge.

This tendency the apostle takes away. He says: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” Then this “therefore” is plain. For also in the last verse of the preceding chapter the apostle had said: “Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” Therefore, thou belongest in this class. For thou doest the same things.

In the text, the apostle places the individual in the class of those who are under the wrath of God.

The Judge

The apostle addresses a man. It is important that we see this. The apostle addresses a man who judges others. He addresses a man who does the same things, while he accuses others. Notice that the apostle addresses this man directly. He points the finger at him and says, “Thou art the man.”

The question has been asked: what man does the apostle have. in mind? There have been many answers. The most common answer is that the apostle here addresses the Jews. Those who hold that position say that in chapter 1 the apostle addresses the heathen. In chapter 2 he addresses the Jews. The reason for this interpretation is, in the first place, that it is evident that the apostle begins a new phase of his main theme in chapter 2. In the second place, the apostle literally addresses the Jews in verse 17, where he says: “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God.” In the third place, the argument is that the apostle is speaking of one who judges another. It is characteristic of the’ Jews, they say, to judge others, and to place themselves above those whom they judge. Therefore, they say, the apostle addresses the Jews.

I do not agree with this interpretation, even though it is the most general one. My reasons are, first, that the apostle says, “O man.” He might have said, “O Jew.” But he does not. He says, “O man.” You can never interpret this to mean, “O Jew.” Second, the apostle adds: “whosoever thou art.” This cannot mean the Jews only. Third, it is not true that the characteristic which the apostle mentions is peculiarly Jewish. It is not characteristically Jewish. It is characteristic of every sinful heart. “Thou art inexcusable, O man, for thou that judgest another, doest the same thing.” This is not only characteristic of the Jew, but also of every sinful man.

Therefore, the explanation is this. In the preceding chapter the apostle had spoken of the heathen. But here he is speaking of man, including the Jew, but not excluding the heathen. In the second place, you may notice that the apostle is using the singular. He does not speak of men. He specifically addresses man. It is important that we see this. The apostle means to point his finger at the individual man. In the third place, notice this feature of the text, that instead of talking about man, the apostle is now speaking to him.

There is this difference between the viewpoint of chapter 1 and the viewpoint of chapter 2. In the first chapter, the apostle speaks of the heathen. But in the second chapter, he speaks of man, including the Jews, but not excluding the heathen, although he has in mind to apply it specifically to the Jews later on. In the first chapter, the apostle speaks in general. But in the second chapter, he uses the singular and points at the individual.

The question now is, how do you react when what the apostle says here is laid at your door. The apostle means to say, “Did you understand what I have developed here? Well, this applies to you.” The text must be understood in this light. We must not say: this is sound doctrine. That is not the question. The question is, when the word of God comes to us and says, thou art that man, what do we say?

The text says, “thou that judgest.” The apostle says that man is a judge. Every man is a judge. He must judge. He must judge in a moral sense. This implies that we are able to evaluate a moral act. It implies that we are able to estimate the moral value of an act. In the second place, it implies that we know the righteous judgment of God over the deeds of men. In the third place, it implies, with a view to our text, that this man’s judgment is not applied to himself but to others. This is his mistake. In the fourth place, the word implies that this man condemns them whom he judges. In the fifth place, the word implies that he expresses this judgment. He openly condemns them before others.

Let us understand that this man who judges does the same things. Notice that the apostle does not say, thou also sinnest. This is not the point. The point is that he does the same sins. He condemns another who lies, and he lies himself. He condemns another who steals, and he steals himself. He condemns another who commits adultery, and he commits adultery himself. The same moral deeds which he condemns in others, he commits himself.

Let us see how characteristic this is of sinful man. There is nothing Jewish about it. We find it in our own hearts. How characteristic of the world that the world condemns the world in the things which the world does. You find it in your daily newspapers. A man condemns the thief and the bank robber. At the same time, this judge who condemns the thief himself steals right and left. The banker cries bloody murder when one steals from him. But he does not care that after he has piled up the money of the poor, he closes his bank. How characteristic of one generation to condemn the sins of a former generation. How easy we can see, through the beam in our own eye, the mote in the other’s eye. Did you never notice, while sitting in company and talking about another, what a slanderer he is, that all the while you are doing the same thing? In other words, it is impossible for us to backbite in talking about the backbiting of others. In one word, it is characteristic of the heart of man that he judges another, while he himself does the same things.

His Imagination

Why should man do this? The implication is that the man who so judges another, while he himself does the same things, tries to persuade himself that he is judge rather than defendant. Thus, he imagines that he can persuade God and others that he is with excuse. He lifts himself above all. He takes part with the Judge. He tells the Judge that he agrees with him. He tells the Judge that all those men before him are worthy of death. He makes himself a companion of the Judge in the courtroom. The man does it. Each man does it.

What a situation! Everybody accusing everybody but himself. This is the implication of the text. What a situation! This is terrible. Just imagine, in a courtroom there are one hundred men, and everyone of them demands the sentence of the other ninety-nine. This is the world. The world is a courtroom. The judgment is not coming; the judgment is every day. It is true that there is a final judgment coming. But the world is a courtroom already now. God judges every man. But in this courtroom, every man stands before the face of God and says, “Yes, condemn them.” Therefore, the apostle says: “Thou that judgest another condemnest thyself, for thou doest the same things.” In the second place, the purpose of the sinful heart that so judges is to declare himself to be outside of this judgment. Why does the sinner condemn the other sinner? What is the underlying idea? What is there in the sinful heart that makes a man do this? It is this, that he means to say, “I am better than all the others.”

You all know the story of David and Nathan. As long as Nathan is speaking of the other man, it is easy for David to condemn that other man. He condemns the other man in the thing that he was doing himself. When David says, “that man shall surely be put to death,” he means to say by implication; “I would never do that.”

Did you ever notice that if a man really comes to repentance, he talks about himself alone? He says: “Be merciful to me a sinner.” But as long as he talks about others, he means to say, “I am better.”

Before himself, this means deceit. He deceives himself. Before others, it is conceit. Before God, it is self-righteousness. And this man, who so judges, will never be receptive to the gospel.

His Inexcusability

Therefore, the apostle says: “Thou art inexcusable, O man.” What does this mean? Literally, it means, “to be without defense.” When is a man with an excuse? In the first place, when the charge brought against him is not true. In the second place, if that man is not under obligation. In the third place, when a man is morally not responsible. In the fourth place, when what is demanded of him is physically impossible.

Now the apostle says that in God’s courtroom man is inexcusable. In the day of judgment, he will be without defense. In the day of judgment, God will judge according ‘to truth. The apostle really implies that God asks every man: “Have you anything to say? Have you anything to say for yourself?” And man will keep still. God will say to the others: “Have you anything to say for the defense of this man?” The world will say, “No, we have always condemned him.”

He is inexcusable.

Why should he be? The apostle says: “The things wherein thou judgest another, thou doest thyself.” When a man judges others, he shows that he is not irresponsible. He shows that he can evaluate a moral deed. While he does so, he actually includes himself among them whom he condemns, for he does the same things.

What shall we say then? We shall say this. We will come down from the bench. We will come down from the bench of our imaginary judgeship. We will take our place among the accused. We will stop judging the other; we will bring ourselves under the righteous judgment of God; and we will hear the, word of our text: “Thou art the man.”

We will never do it! We will never do it, unless God takes this word and inscribes it in our hearts, so that we hear it as the word of God: “Thou art that man.” Then we will say: “Be merciful to me a sinner.”

But this is the admonition of the text. Come down from the bench. Come down to the floor of the courtroom. On the floor of the courtroom is a Lawyer. Man has no excuse. But for him who places himself on the floor of the courtroom, among the condemned, there is the righteousness of God. Jesus Christ is his eternal defense and apology. And we will say: “We, then, being justified by faith, have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Herman Hoeksema

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